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SmallLaw: 2010 Legal Profession Predictions

By Mazyar Hedayat | Monday, January 11, 2010


Originally published on January 4, 2010 in our free SmallLaw newsletter.

Ah, the holidays. The togetherness of Thanksgiving, the childlike glee of Christmas morning, the excitement of New Year's Eve, the self-loathing that washes over you the next morning. Luckily, New Year's Eve is not only a time for reflection and renewal, but a great excuse to drown your regrets in a sea of moderately-priced champagne. Wait a second. Reverse that. Let's take a moment to peer into the future of small law firms in 2010.

1. Social Media Gets Real

Social media has been through the ringer — starting out as the darling of overpaid consultants in January, exposed as hot air by June, and falling short of overheated industry expectations by December. Does this mean social media has had its day among lawyers and will fade back into the shadows from whence it came?

Not exactly. As with all technology trends this decade, social media was shunned, then hyped, and then discarded by lawyers, which means that we can now look at it realistically. Of course you're entitled to have doubts, but when giants like LexisNexis get on board the social media train, as they have with Martindale-Hubbell Connected, you know something serious is happening.

My advice: if this year's novelties are next year's indispensable tools then you'd best learn to be social or suffer the consequences.

2. Legal Media Goes Real Time

Its official — books, newspapers, and magazines are on life support. Once upon a time, the paperless office existed only in large firms that hired large vendors.

Today, small firms and solos can do the same, but why now? Two reasons. First, the price of digital information has fallen mighty close to zero so it is hard to ignore. Second, lawyers want to win every argument. That means having up-to-the second information. Print can't do the job.

Of course you will still read books, magazines, and newspapers next year — unless you've switched to one of the e-readers propagating all over the place — but serious work must be done in real time and that calls for digital content. One more thing — before you know it, failure to use tools such as Twitter feeds and mobile platforms will be tantamount to professional negligence (don't say it can't happen).

3. Real Time Gets Social

You've probably heard of Google Wave, the real time collaboration experiment by Google combining instant messaging, email, online document creation, video conferencing, audio conferencing, file-sharing, and wikis.

With all these features and a pedigree like Google's behind it, you'd think that Wave couldn't miss. But it did. And the reason turned out to be plain old information overload. Most people who tried Wave needed a nap and a cold compress afterwards, leaving the rest of us yelling into a void.

Which reminds us that it takes two to collaborate. In 2010, we will see a variety of more limited, and more successful, experiments with real time collaboration. After all, instant sharing may prove the only way to cope with a world of instant information, and instant collaboration brings that information to life in a way that you just can't accomplish on your own.

4. Content Is No Longer King

Traditionally, law firms were lifelines for their clients, who would surely drown in the complexity of the legal system or be ambushed by obscure legal information without the advice of counsel.

Today, prospective clients are more capable than ever of identifying and resolving their own disputes without the intercession of a lawyer. As legal services continue to unravel, the content sold by lawyers — forms, advice, research, even representation itself — can all be found a la carte, and for less.

Compare us to the publishing industry, which has undergone a similar upheaval. Once the market was robust enough to support a multitude of niche publications. Today, the major publications are barely surviving, and everyone else has gone home.

But what will happen to the brilliant insights, riveting reporting, and killer advice offered by those niche players? Doesn't their unique content make them immune to market forces? For that matter, doesn't our content make us immune?

Since it turns out that nobody has a monopoly on good information, good advice, or good judgment, the answer is "no it doesn't." Law firms can fail too.

5. Outsourcing Gives Way to Insourcing

In a world where the Internet has flattened space and shortened our time to think about nearly everything, location has become nearly irrelevant. Research done in Texas or Hyderabad can be combined with drafts produced in Tennessee or Hong Kong to be presented by an attorney in New York.

Outsourcing is nothing new. However, as costs fall and people overcome their skepticism, this kind of scenario will become increasingly common in 2010. In addition, as communication and collaboration costs fall to zero clients will demand to benefit from the savings (translation: downward pressure on rates).

Every lawyer has heard about "outsourcing" to foreign destinations, but this year more of us will discover that work can be "insourced" to states with higher attorney unemployment. Does it sound like I'm celebrating the misfortune of others? Maybe a little, but at least this way we can keep the jobs from going overseas. Besides, I heard the lawyers in India are asking for competitive wages now. Where do they think they are? America?

6. Everyone Gets Online

While I was going to confine myself to five predictions in this piece, I couldn't help adding a bonus prediction. After 10 years of beating the drum for legal participation on the Internet, I can safely say that those of my colleagues who were ever going to get online will have done so by 2010. If the train hasn't left the station yet for the remaining holdouts, the horn is now blowing and the conductor is closing the doors. All aboard!

One More Thing

SmallLaw's first year was a blast. I want to thank each and every reader for inviting me to rant on their computer screens once a month, I would also like to pay my respects to the editors at TechnoLawyer who put up with so much from me in 2009. I can't promise that 2010 will be any easier, but I will try to only make it slightly harder. Happy New Year everyone.

Written by Mazyar M. Hedayat of M. Hedayat & Associates, P.C.

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